a photo of a sleeping wolf dreaming of the three little pigs

The Order of Adjectives in English: Part 2 – The Big Bad Wolf or How Order Changes

 “The Big Bad Wolf or How Order Changes” is an attempt to dive deeper into the topic of what the order of adjectives is in English, which we talked about in the “What Is the Order of Adjectives in a Sentence? An Infographic, Examples, and More…” post. As with any rule, there are exceptions, and that is what the focus is on here.

The Color Legend below is here to help you understand what words are highlighted in what color and for what reason. Hopefully, it will make reading and understanding the content much easier.

If the image below appears to be broken, click on the link at the bottom of it to open it.

Order of adjectives – Color Legend by Meri Zaha

Have a look at the Table of Contents for this post. If you can’t find what you are looking for there, check out the “What Is the Order of Adjectives in a Sentence? An Infographic, Examples, and More…” post.

In the article “What Is the Order of Adjectives in a Sentence? An Infographic, Examples, and More…” we presented an interactive infographic on the order of adjectives based on the one in the Farlex Grammar Book Complete English Grammar Rules.

Here is what that order, in brief, looks like:

  • Adjectives of opinion (nice, good, beautiful, bad) 
  • Size & measurement adjectives (tall, large, small, big)
  • Shape adjectives (round, square, oval)
  • Adjectives of condition (dirty, clean, happy, sad)
  • Age adjectives (young, old, new, antique)
  • Color adjectives (orange, reddish, transparent)
  • Adjectives of pattern (polka-dot, checked, striped)
  • Adjectives of origin (Spanish, Chinese, German)
  • Adjectives of material (wooden, plastic, metallic)
  • Adjectives of purpose (shopping bag, rolling pin, kitchen table, passenger seat)

Also, we mentioned that adjectives can be placed either:

  • before the word they modify
  • after it, following the linking verb to be1
  • after a sense verb2 that acts as a linking verb.

This is an interesting story.
This story 
is1 interesting.
This story sounds2 interesting.

It was also mentioned that even though most adjectives, as the examples above demonstrate, can be found before or after the word they modify (attributive or predicative positions), some adjectives can only have a fixed position.

➡️ The hamster is alert and thinking of escape.✅

➡️ The alert hamster is thinking of escape.❌

a watercolor hamster - The hamser is alert - order of adjectives in English

In this post, we will focus on some details about adjectives and their order – how it changes, what are the reasons why, and how significant these changes may be.

1. Postpositive adjectives (appearing after a noun/ pronoun)

We already mentioned the attributive adjectives that come before the noun. We also talked about the predicative adjectives that come after the noun (following a verb) and explained that some adjectives have a fixed position only.

Sometimes, attributive adjectives can come immediately after pronouns or nouns, in a so-called postpositive postition ➡️postpositive adjectives. This is done for several reasons.

  • With borrowed words, especially when it comes to legal, financial terms or military and other administrative positions individuals have
  • When used together with superlative adjectives1 with an attributive position.
  • With pronouns2.

The job of the attorney general is to represent the public’s interest in their state.

Accounts payable represents the amount of money to be paid, whereas the accounts receivable represents the amount of money to be received.

This is the cheapest1 option available.

That was the worst1 scenario possible.

I need someone professional2 to do this task.

This applies to everyone present2.

Very often, as the examples above show, adjectives that end in -able/-ible are placed in postpositive position. Swithing the places may cause difference in meaning, so we need to be careful with that.

Lily is looking for a responsible man.

Lily looking for the man responsible.

Both sentences above are correct but mean different things. In the first sentence, Lily is looking for a man she can trust and count on (possibly for a life partner), whereas, in the second, she is looking for the man who is responsible for some wrongdoing.

2. Types of opinion adjectives

As mentioned in the “What Is the Order of Adjectives in a Sentence? An Infographic, Examples, and More…” post, generally speaking, there are two types of adjectives: opinion adjectives (which we use to express our opinions about something or someone) and fact adjectives that help us learn more (or tell more) about a factual feature something or someone has in terms of size, shape, age, material, etc.

There are two types of opinion adjectivesgeneral opinion1 and specific opinion2 adjectives. General opinion adjectives can be used with a person, an animal, or a thing, while specific opinion adjectives are used only with specific nouns.

For example, we can use the adjective beautiful to describe a person, an animal, or an object but we cannot use the adjective delicious the same way.

Some adjectives can only be used specifically for people and animals (friendly, intelligent, etc.) while others need nouns like furniture, foods, places, etc.

I live in a beautiful1 town.

People, animals, places, things – anything can be beautiful.

A comfortable2 bed.

A bed can be comfortable, but it cannot be smart or friendly.

A delicious2 sandwich.

Food can be delicious, but it cannot be intelligent or comfortable.

A spacious2 apartment.

An apartment can be spacious, but a sandwich cannot.

As for the order of these types of adjectives, general opinion adjectives1 come before specific opinion adjectives2.

David is a nice1, hard-working2 man.
This is a lovely1, cozy2 studio.

3. Adjectives of color

As mentioned in the interactive infographic which you can find in the”What Is the Order of Adjectives in a Sentence? An Infographic, Examples, and More…” post, adjectives of color include the names of colors themselves (black, red, yellow), approximate colors (reddish, grayish) but also color properties (transparent, opaque, bright).

If we use adjectives of color and color properties in a sentence, the property comes first.

She wore a bright(color property) yellow(color) dress.

If there is a general opinion adjective1 in the mix, it comes before the property2 and the color adjectives3.

She wore a lovely1, bright2 yellow3 dress.

If there are two color adjectives in a sentence we use “and”.

He wore a black and white shirt.

4. Size & measurement adjectives

Usually, adjectives of length1 come before adjectives of width2.

The car drove down the long1, wide2 road.

The car drove down the wide2, long1 road.

5. Adjectives of purpose

Adjectives of purpose, as already mentioned, help us understand what something is for. Usually, they end in -ing. (By the way, if you are interested, you can check out the article “What is the difference between -ed and -ing adjectives?“.

 a sleeping bag, a shopping cart, a roasting pan, a rolling pin 

Sometimes a noun may act as an adjective if it precedes another noun and defines it, giving it a specific purpose.

passenger seat, a cupboard door, a kitchen table, dinosaur fossils

All the words in bold above are typically nouns.

6. About commas and adjectives: how to decide when to add a comma?

When it comes to commas, the first “rule of thumb” is this: if you have a sentence with multiple adjectives, where each adjective can stand independently of the others in a separate sentence with the noun, then put commas between said adjectives. Such adjectives are called coordinate.

Adjectives that “need” each other to “paint the whole picture” are called cumulative adjectives; we do not separate them with a comma.

There are three ways to determine whether adjectives are coordinate (and should be separated by a comma) or cumulative (and shouldn’t.)

  • Check if the adjectives can describe the noun independently of each other
  • Switch their places and see if the sentence still makes sense
  • Add “and” in between and check if the sentence continues to make sense

If all of the above works, then add a comma. If it doesn’t, then we are talking about cumulative adjectives, so no comma is needed.

Let’s check! Take the example sentence – There is a lovely small shop downtown. ➡️

  • Independence check: There is a lovely shop downtown. 🆗 There is a small shop downtown. 🆗
  • Switch places: There is a small lovely store downtown. 🆗
  • Add “and”: There is a lovely and small shop downtown. 🆗

Although technically speaking, the sentences above are not 100% grammatically correct, they are still ok, so it is safe to say that we need a comma between the adjectives lovely and small – ➡️ There is a lovely, small shop downtown.

Let’s have a look at another example:

I bought this pink leather purse from the lovely, small shop downtown.

pink leather purse - order of adjectives in English

We already checked and saw, that there should be a comma between the opinion adjective lovely, and the size adjective small.

Now let’s see if there should be a comma between the color adjective pink and the adjective of material leather.

  • Independence check: I bought this pink purse. 🆗 I bought this leather purse. 🆗
  • Switch places: I bought this leather pink purse.
  • Add “and”: I bought this pink and leather purse.

In the case of the pink leather purse, the adjectives pink and leather are cumulative because they build on each other to make a full description. The purse is not only made of leather, but the leather is also pink, so, the color adjective pink builds on the description of the leather purse as a whole, so we cannot separate them with a comma.

6. 5 Different sources, different categories

As mentioned above, the order of adjectives presented here is based on the Farlex Grammar Book Complete English Grammar Rules. It’s good to mention that some sources include another category of adjectives called “physical quality” in the third position after size, and before shape adjectives (for example, here). This category seems to be quite broad and, among others, it includes adjectives that would fall under the condition category from the infographic above. (For example, untidy).

Some sources have separate categories for weight, temperature, and humidity (check this Wikipedia page for more on that.) It does make things even more specific. (More complicated, I’d say. 🙂

7. The Big Bad Wolf, or how order changes

7. 1 The big bad wolf

The very name of the Big Bad Wolf illustrates how something can break the rules and yet sound so natural that we wouldn’t have it any other way.

If I were to switch the places of the adjectives big and bad, to fit the rule “opinion first, facts second” (or “opinion first, size and measurement second”), and said “Let me tell you a story about the Bad Big Wolf!”, you would stop me right there and ask, “Wait a minute, don’t you mean the Big Bad Wolf?” 

That switch completely destroys the character most of us know but can’t say we love.🐺

The article in the Washinton Post “Big, bad wolf or bad, big wolf? The surprising way we order our words.” offers the following explanation:

The “big bad wolf” of fairy tale, for instance, shows the size adjective preceding the opinion one. Examples such as these are instead witness to the “Polyanna Principle,” by which speakers prefer to present positive, or indifferent, values before negative ones.

– “Big, bad wolf or bad, big wolf? The surprising way we order our words.”, Simon Horobin, the Washinton Post

There is another interesting explanation for this, found in an article from BBC that mentions the enigmatic linguistic rule of ablaut reduplication / ˈæblaʊt rɪˌdjuːplɪˈkeɪʃən /. It may sound like something you have never heard before, but it is present in the daily lives of most (if not all) active users of the English language today, especially if they are on TikTok.

For sanity’s sake, let’s call it the I, A, O rule.

Reduplication in linguistics is when you repeat a word, sometimes with an altered consonant (lovey-dovey, fuddy-duddy, nitty-gritty), and sometimes with an altered vowel: bish-bash-bosh, ding-dang-dong. If there are three words then the order has to go I, A, O. If there are two words then the first is I and the second is either A or O.

The language rules we know – but don’t know we know, Mark Forsyth, BBC

Some examples: zig-zag, tick-tack, King Kong, etc.

7. 2 Beautiful, big vs big, beautiful

Even though, as mentioned before, opinion adjectives normally come first, in the combination of beautiful, big, there was a shift that happened around 1960, and the adjectives beautiful(opinion adjective) and big(size adjective) changed places. The Ngram from Google below shows that now the order big, beautiful is more frequently used.

This may be due to wanting to put the emphasis on big instead of beautiful. (I bet the American Dream has a lot to do with that 😁.) Also, when it comes to the subject of lifestyle, many people have different opinions on what a big house or a big car looks like, so this order is not surprising.

Small, however, is small. 😀

Click here if the chart below is not displaying correctly.

7. 3 Old round vs round old

Although traditionally, shape adjectives precede age adjectives, as shown in the infographic above (which was inspired by the Farlex Grammar Book “Complete English Grammar Rules“), and also in the Cambridge Dictionary, some sources put age adjectives before shape adjectives. (for example, the Wikipedia page linked above.) Here is another Ngram which shows that the age adjective old comes before the shape adjective round, and that order is more commonly used.

Click here if the chart below is not displaying correctly.

If you still haven’t checked the interactive infographic on the order of adjectives, now would be a great time to do that by clicking here.

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